Misleading calculations - On the number of foreigners who have left for the Islamic State

ISIS has evolved into a global phenomenon. This is not only to be said because of terrorist attacks in different countries all around the globe, committed in the name of the self proclaimed state in Iraq and Syria, but also due to the fact that mostly young Muslims (their declaration of belief will be of importance for this article) from a wide variety of countries have yet travelled to what they think is the latest Khilafa (caliphate). 

Myriads of reports have been written on this, regularly publishing the numbers of fighters from different country who fulfilled their wish to emigrate into ISIS-held territory; and they are not only coming from Muslim majority countries or those countries which are well known for hosting a particularly pious way of Islam such as Saudi-Arabia. Many of those reports, lists and tables also show the estimated number of people who have left Europe for the life under the black flag and the percentage of emigrants compared to the whole population of a country, e.g. here, here and here

But there is one important fact that the authors of these lists above failed to mention: the Muslim factor. To join ISIS, you don’t have to be incredibly smart or strong or skilled in a certain job. The only thing you have to be is Muslim; Sunni Muslim to be fairly accurate. This is why these tables so often (probably unintentionally) falsify the results given. Breaking it down, these calculations include everybody from steadfast Sunni Islamists to Atheists and even devout Catholic monks. We certainly agree on the fact that not all of them are equally likely to become ISIS inhabitants/members.

Let us go into details. The results of this calculations always look quite similar: a country with quite a small population and/or a high amount of Jihadis originating from it is listed on one of the top places of ‘terror-exporting nations’. The following list will be used as a quick example.

Source: Guy van Vlierden
As many may have already expected, Jordan, Tunisia and Saudi-Arabia comprise the top 3 of the list. Depending on which intelligence report is being used, also the Maldives tend to be ranked on one of the first positions as well. All four countries (like many other on the list) have in common that their over-all-population tends to be close to 100% Sunni. That makes calculating Number of Jihadis : population in million = Number of Jihadis per million inhabitants little prone to failure. However, if the religious preconditions vary, it gets more complicated. I will explain this through the example of Belgium. 

Belgium ranks on #10 on the list with about 52 Jihadis per 1m Belgians, making it the first European country on the list. This number comes from dividing the Belgians known to have emigrated to the Islamic State (the author calculated with 550 emigrants) by 11; Belgium has an overall population of about 11m people. 

But this is what can be called misleading. Belgium is home to a relatively high number of Muslims. Roughly 400.000 Belgians, regardless of their ethnicity, follow Islam of which 98% belong to the Sunni branch and just those are the ones who could actively join the ranks of ISIS. So rather than dividing 550 by 11, one should multiply 550 with 2.5! This is how you actually arrive at the total of Jihadis per 1m Muslim Belgians or at least come considerably close to it. It is also a number you can actually work with as it is easily comparable with the result from countries with overwhelming Sunni Muslim majority. I made a table containing some 20 countries which one can consider to be of importance for highlighting the more or less constant flow of foreign fighters into ISIS-held territory:

The result, however, is completely different from the initial one: per 1m Muslims living in Belgium about 1375 leave for the sake of Jihad. In other words: nearly 0.15% of the Belgian Muslims have been / are on their personal Hijrah (emigration) to the warzone. The revised calculation does not only show that Belgium ‘overtakes’ Jordan, Tunisia and Saudi-Arabia on the list but also that it is a distant #2 to Finland which has lost almost two times more of its Muslim community to ISIS than Belgium. However, it certainly is an alarming quantity which does not even include the radicalised persons not willing or not able to go abroad. 

All in all, these alternative comparisons show that Muslim societies in the Western world, and especially in Europe, carry quite a high potential of radicalisation. A fact which can be easily overlooked. Statistics originally should help to disclose this; a task they don’t really fulfil in the cases cited above.

All these calculations, lists, tables etc. have in common that they are not hosting complete figures. Numbers, be it of the population and even more of those who have left for the Khilafa, are to a certain extend a matter of speculation which has direct influence on per-capita-calculations. The same goes for the number of Muslims, because some countries like France do not ask their people for information about religion. Others, especially Sweden, Denmark, Austria and Germany, house an unknown, but considerably higher number of Sunnis since the migrant crisis has fully broken out in September 2015. This is why the calculation provided above should not be seen as in any way set or the given numbers as the ultimate truth. Merely, its purpose is to reveal a significant error in the previous articles’ logic and to give an impression of which numbers are at least closer to the real situation.


WorldCon hat gesagt…

There are about 11.25 million people in Belgium, 7% are Muslims, 400.000 is a gross underestimation, its closer to 781887 Muslims. Belgium then comes up with 585-753 Muslims/1m, considerably less than the numbers you propose.

Furthermore the last number is from the first January 2015 and is less representative.

I suggest using right numbers when voicing a critic, as it puts the whole scope of calculations you made in question.

Shell Shocked hat gesagt…

First of all, due to moderation settings I've not encountered your comment until now. Sorry for that. I have changed that by now.

The problem seems to be, that I came over a statistic review that states the number of religious/pious Muslims with 400k. Indeed, the over-all estimates are higher with 700k-800k people of Muslim background living in Belgium.

Regarding your last sentence, I refer to my last note: the thing with the numbers is a tough one. "Right" numbers hardly exist.